Up The Creek Without A Filter

“A filter is a filter is a filter.”

If Gertrude Stein had been a videographer instead of a poet, that’s what she would have said. A filter is the spice that turns fish soup into bouillabaisse. But filters are expensive, so we have to be creative.

Lots of people have heard about smearing Vaseline on a clear glass filter to get a nice, dreamy look or stretching a nylon stocking across the front of the lens to try to capture a “film” look. But what’s really fun is getting wild and crazy and making your own filters.


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By the way, if you don’t have both an ultraviolet (UV) filter and a clear glass filter for your camcorder, get them before you try these tips. And, just in case you were wondering, never put anything directly on the lens itself. There is a chance that the lens coatings may dissolve, so don’t take the chance.

You’ll find it helpful to use manual focus control when using filters. Auto-focus tends to drift when certain items are positioned in front of the lens.


Want to shoot a nighttime scene on a sunny afternoon? Check out your potato-chip bag. Many of them are made from an opaque colored plastic that is actually transparent when you look through it from the inside.

Clean the plastic carefully. Turn it inside out and unscrew your UV filter. You have a UV filter, right? Now put the plastic over the lens so you don’t see any words or pictures on the bag, and screw the filter back on. Peer through the viewfinder. It may take a little adjustment, but you can get a convincing nighttime shot that will really move your story along.

Nostalgia and the Sepia Print

Old-time pictures have a really neat sepia tone to them. You’ve decided you want to duplicate that look for a dream sequence or flashback, but you don’t have a sepia filter. Well, all is not lost. Buy a bag of cheese-flavor snacks or get any other bag that’s colored a really warm orange. Carefully cut around the lettering, and you will probably wind up with enough clear orange plastic to fit under your UV filter. You may have to play with the white balance a little, but you can duplicate that warm, old-time look for a buck and a half.

And you get a bag of cheesy snacks to munch on in the bargain.

Golden Glitter

Say you want to add a magical feel to a special shot in a wedding or for a science fiction scene. You want something unusual. Just visit your local discount store and pick up some glitter from their craft counter. Mix the glitter with some Vaseline (you can thin it with paint thinner) and paint it on a clear filter.

An Icy Shine

Paint a clear glass filter with a mixture of epsom salts and stale beer. Go easy with this. It’s easy to put too much on the filter. But, with a fine brush and some artistic ability, you will wind up with a really nice misty prism (you have to try it to understand) that will really enhance artsy shots.

Cellophane Psychedelia

Get a long strip of cellophane, stiff enough to crinkle when you crush it. Crush it. Then, with your camcorder locked down on the tripod, pull the crinkled sheet past the camcorder lens. Things will jump around most agreeably.

Balloon Bubbles

Get a small balloon, clear or colored, but transparent, and fill it with mineral oil (you can also color the oil). Then, shake it up so that bubbles appear in the oil and shoot through the balloon. Try squeezing the balloon while you shoot. This works best against brightly colored backgrounds.

Painting With Light

Draw squiggles and dots on your clear glass filter, with felt-tipped pens. Be creative here. You can achieve some remarkable results. Some photo shops will sell you “special” pens made just for this, but drug stores carry the same thing at about a buck and a half. You can also get colored Vaseline.

Star Trek Sprinkles

Here’s another one. Remember when you went to the discount store and bought the glitter? Try slowly sifting some glitter just in front of the lens. For sweetheart shots, it can’t be beat. By the way, did you know that, in the original Star Trek, that was how they did the effect when Scotty “beamed” Kirk and Spock anywhere? Glitter, bright lights and flipping the film so things fell upward.

Window Tints

In the automotive section at many department stores, you can buy a bronze or gray window tinting kit that will give you about two hundred filters. Just clip an appropriate sized piece, and lay it onto your glass filter with a little water. It can sub for a neutral density filter- a really dark one. Don’t ask me why you would want two hundred filters. If you find a smaller window tinting kit, get it.

On Reflection

For a neat effect, buy a small face-silvered or first-surface mirror, the kind that reflects only certain wavelengths of light. Scientific supply houses sell them at a range of prices from around $10 to over $100, depending on size and quality. They’re delicate. Be careful with them. The silvering isn’t protected by glass, because it’s laid on the face of the mirror. By holding it beside the lens and moving it into the shot, you can create some mind-altering images. Try moving it around the outside of the lens while the camcorder is running. Or make a hinge with duct tape and sweep the mirror back and forth like a swinging door.

Colored Diffusion Filters

To warm up a shot, take a clear glass filter, apply some red poster paint to the toothbrush, and very carefully fling a little paint onto the filter. The point is to deposit tiny drops of color onto the glass. Scraping a Popsicle stick across the bristles works well.

Some people like to tap the toothbrush against their fingers to drop a spray of tiny dots onto the filter. However you get the paint from the toothbrush to the glass, remember that the big drops fall fastest and big isn’t good. You might try to put the glass above the toothbrush and tap upwards. That way, only the smallest drops hit the glass. In the end, you don’t want to see the dots, just the color. It diffuses the shot slightly, as well as warms it.

With practice, you can make multi-colored filters this way. Try flicking dark blue across the top of the filter and light yellow-green across the bottom. Shoot your favorite park and check out how alive it looks.

Look Around

To wrap this up, remember that anything you can see through you can shoot through. Make sure to try an effect before you rely on it, and shoot through the filter to actually see the result. Don’t stop with these ideas. Shoot through fish tanks or Lava Lamps. Be as creative as you can be with the things you have.

In an emergency, you can always shoot through a pair of sunglasses. They’re tinted and some are even polarized. Then when you wrap, you can wear your filters home and look cool.

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